Present Value: Sarah Kreps talks about war finance and democratic accountability

By: Present Value Podcast Team
Sarah Kreps portrait

Sarah Kreps, Cornell professor of government and adjunct professor of law

Present Value, an independent editorial project produced and hosted by Johnson students, had the pleasure of interviewing Sarah Kreps, professor of government and adjunct professor of law at Cornell University.

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The changing history of American war taxes

In her recent book Taxing Wars: The American Way of War Finance and the Decline of Democracy, Sarah Kreps explores the history of war finance in the United States. She argues that different public financing methods (for example, taxes versus debt) have historically resulted in differing levels of democratic accountability for those in power—namely the president and Congress.

Kreps outlines a history of the use of war taxes, which are taxes levied on the public to pay for war during or immediately following a conflict. Their use stretches back to the Revolutionary War and effectively brought citizens into the decision-making process in a more tangible way; those who did not serve directly were called upon to make sacrifices of a fiscal nature.

As the fundamental aspects of warfare shifted in the nuclear era, so did the reliance on taxes as a method of financing armed conflicts. Wars became lengthier and “fought at the periphery,” and war taxes have fallen out of favor with elected officials who find it harder to elicit financial sacrifice from constituents with an increased aversion to higher taxes. According to Kreps, the  consequences of this shift include a growing deficit and weakened connection between the public and the cost of the war itself.

Drones reduce public perception of the human cost of war

Another significant shift in modern warfare, according to Kreps, stems from the introduction and use of drones. Recent U.S. administrations have continually increased the use of drones in combat, in part because drones provide a barrier between an ongoing war and the human costs seen by the public back home. This has also coincided with the vast improvement of medical aid, which has reduced levels of fatalities. While a markedly positive development, Kreps takes a closer look at the unintended results of this shift, including the lengthening of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and argues that the reintroduction of a war tax might result in mitigating public complacency toward wars that have become permanent in nature.

Cyber warfare: Credibility of retaliation is key deterrent

Kreps’s research on one of the most recent topics of modern warfare, cyberattacks, has revolved around similar themes of public sentiment. Just as nuclear warfare has created deterrents to “all-out wars,” it is important to consider the deterrents that exist for cyberattacks, she says. A deterrent is only as valid as the underlying credibility of the threat of retaliation.

In her research, Kreps finds that the public today is less willing to support an escalation of military force as a response to cyberattacks. These attacks appear to be viewed in a fundamentally different light by the public and, as a result, elicit a less forceful response. This subdued public response may reduce the deterrent in cyber warfare created by a promise of retaliation, as such a response may be viewed by foreign adversaries as less probable.

Kreps expands on the above topics and more in her full-length episode of Present Value. Listen, subscribe, and share!

About Sarah Kreps

Sarah Kreps is a professor of government and adjunct professor of law at Cornell University. She is also a faculty fellow in the Milstein Program in Technology and Humanity at the Cornell Tech Campus in New York City.

Kreps is the author of four books. Her most recent, Taxing Wars: The American Way of War Finance and the Decline of Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2018), deals with the causes and consequences of how advanced industrialized democracies pay for war. She has also written two books on drones and one on U.S. military interventions carried out over the last decade.